Chavez’s Defeat in Referendum Vote Reveals Dangers Facing the Radicalization

by Gerry Foley

The constitutional amendments put forward directly by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and by the National Assembly dominated by his supporters were unexpectedly rejected by a narrow margin in the Dec. 2 referendum. Chavez had made the vote into a test of confidence in his regime, declaring that voting against it would be betraying him and the country.

The right-wing opposition, after having been defeated by Chavez in a series of polls, originally opted for a boycott of the election. But it switched at the last minute to support for a “no” vote, and the U.S. big business press pushed the idea that the vote would be decisive for “democracy” in Venezuela.

In the run-up to the election, Chavez’s former minister of defense, retired General Baduel, also called for a “no” vote. Apparently, the opponents of Chavez’s reforms felt the wind shifting against the proposed constitutional changes.

As it happened, sections of the population that had previously supported Chavez turned against him in this test vote. Whereas 7.3 million votes were cast for Chavez in the 2006 presidential election, only 4.3 million were cast for his proposed constitutional amendments, a loss of more than a third of his 2006 vote.

The “no” vote was 4.5 million, topping the “yes” vote by about 200,000, or less than 1 percent (50.70 percent against 49.29 percent). The abstention rate was 44 percent, very high for Venezuela. The advantage of the “no” vote was higher in the country’s five major constituencies (4.8 percent in Caracas, 5.6 percent in the state of Carabobo, 12.4 percent in the state of Miranda, 2 percent in the state of Lara, and 13.8 percent in the state of Zulia.

The proposals lost in all of the country’s major cities and more economically developed areas. On the other hand, they did well in large parts of the countryside. Such contrasts are typically seen when disillusionment occurs in a process of radicalization. The radicalization spreads to newer areas, while it declines in the older ones.

The vote for the proposals on which Chavez had pinned all his political prestige was in fact substantially less than the membership of the state party that he created as the instrument of his regime, the PSUV, which now reportedly stands at 6 million out of a total of 27 million inhabitants of the country.

Despite the apparent polarization of the country between left and right, it was Chavez’s own supporters who defeated him, not the right, since the number of “no” voters was only slightly higher than those who voted for the right in the 2006 presidential elections.

Nonetheless, it was the right and the imperialists who took comfort from the defeat of Chavez’s proposals. In fact, the claims that Chavez proved his respect for democracy by his acceptance of the election result are hollow.

What is important for the masses is that their leaders win, not that they are good losers. Because the working people are losers in economic life, they need victories to give them confidence that they can change their fate.

The defeat of Chavez’s proposals thus is a serious setback for the radicalization in Venezuela. It was the future of the radicalization that was at stake in the vote, and that is why Socialist Action favored a “yes,” vote, although the letter of the proposals and the way that they were pushed did not merit support.

The proposals were presented in two blocs, without giving voters a choice on the specific measures. In both blocs, progressive social reforms were mixed up with proposals that would have strengthened the repressive powers of the state. Moreover, since the progressive social reforms could easily be enacted by law, it appeared that the real purpose of the proposals was to strengthen the state. The package was presented as a step forward toward socialism, but the references to socialist transformation were vague and contradictory.

Some revolutionary socialists in Venezuela called for a blank vote because of the negative features of the proposals and what they saw as Chavez’s purpose of reinforcing his ability to balance between the bourgeoisie and the working people. They had serious arguments backed up with important facts.

Nonetheless, in failing to support a “yes” vote, these socialists made a grave tactical error because they appeared to contribute to a victory for the right and the imperialists. They made basically the same error as Chavez—that is, thinking that legal texts are more important than the actual social and political relationship of forces.

Groups that are hoping to make their fortunes by hanging on to Chavez’s coattails are now trying to pillory those left groups that did not support his proposals. But they will find it difficult to isolate these left opponents when close to 40 percent of those who voted for Chavez in the past did not support the constitutional amendments.

The radicalization in Venezuela seems to have come to a turning point in which the basic realities of the class struggle are asserting themselves. Chavez’s bourgeois and pro-bourgeois allies are obviously becoming frightened that the process is getting out of control.

On the other hand, the working people are becoming impatient with the gap between the government’s invocations of socialism and the fact that, despite the regime’s social spending, their situation has not fundamentally changed. Moreover, in some ways the conditions of the masses are becoming worse, as the capitalist economy is becoming distorted without Chavez’s offering an overall alternative, and without any means for democratic control of the economy.

On the independent but pro-Chavez website, Aporrea, Roberto Lopez, a trade-union leader in the state of Zulia, wrote Dec. 5: “There is a flagrant contrast between the revolutionary talk and the practical application. The problems of supply should have been solved basically in the months following the oil strike in 2002-2003. They have created disorientation and confusion among the people.

“In practice, we are living in a war economy, with shortages of milk, sugar, cooking oil, toilet paper, tomato sauce, flour, chicken, meat, rice, pasta. Virtually all the basic food items are scarce. And for a whole year the government has proven completely impotent to solve this problem.

“Other problems are also very much felt by the population, such as insecurity and inflation, which the government has also been unable to control. … Criminals are operating with impunity throughout the country, to the extent that the boundary line between the police and criminal gangs has become very fuzzy….

“Inflation is eating away at workers’ wages. The government predicted 12 percent inflation this year. It is going to end up being 20 percent, almost twice what the government planned. This is destroying all the gains in wages and other benefits that the workers have gotten over the year.”

And at the same time, the people have been watching the cancerous growth of the black market and a corrupt bureaucracy.

Ominously, a response of Chavez to the defeat of the proposed amendments was to claim that his defeat showed that the Venezuelan people were not yet ripe for socialism. In fact, all indications are that the opposite is true, that the Venezuelan masses are becoming disillusioned with Chavez’s promises of socialism when they do not see socialism being put into practice.

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